The Genealogy Interview: Asking Relatives Questions to Grow Your Family Tree

Have you had the chance to sit down with your relatives and capture their knowledge of the family? 

If you're a beginner, this is the absolute perfect place to start gathering details about your ancestors. And even if you're an experienced genealogist, conducting some conversational interviews with your family members can help you break through brick walls. 

Perhaps most importantly, sitting down with your relatives can result in amazing stories being shared - if you capture them properly, they can become treasured family heirlooms themselves. Your notes from these conversations can help form the basis of your first (or next) research question, and can also be useful to bring to a consultation with a professional genealogist.  

To be successful, you need to go in with a plan or you won't wind up capturing much useful information or many share-worthy family stories.

However, this doesn't mean constructing a massive list of questions to interrogate your relatives with one by one - that's far from the optimal approach! 

It's best to be flexible and open-minded, but there are several things to know that will make this effort far more successful. We consulted some of our genealogy experts and collected their advice into a list of top tips. Read on to see what they had to share with us! 

1. Consider sitting down with groups or pairs

The first thing to be aware of is that the initial experience can be slightly awkward - after all, most of our relatives are not used to getting interviewed, and most us aren't used to conducting interviews! 

This is why it's important to make the setting as natural as possible. The more it seems like a conversation to all involved, the better (more tips on this below).

One way to facilitate a comfortable setting is to ask groups or pairs of people to sit down with you - this can help some feel less shy by sharing the spotlight, and it can also create the opportunity for amazing interchanges and complementary answers from members of the group.

Think about the amazing stories a set of siblings can come up with or the loving back-and-forth you might capture from a couple that has been married for decades. 

2. Don't just find facts—collect stories 

There are two general categories of questions to ask and information to seek.

Finding out genealogically relevant facts - such as a marriage date, name of a grandparent, where an immigrant ancestor was born in the old country - is absolutely a worthy goal. Don't be shy about posing questions that directly ask for the information you're seeking.

However, direct questions like this can sometimes cause people to draw a blank - even when answered, the answer may not be very interesting. Our experts always point out that it's really important to ask more fluid, conversational questions - these kinds of questions will generate more spontaneous, story-based responses.

Sometimes we overlook asking about stories because we're so focused on names and dates. Those are certainly important, but keep in mind that those details may be most easily discovered through a story. 

3. Ask creative questions to get the best stories  

In general, asking open-ended, creative questions can often result in the most interesting answers and stories - knowing a little bit about the relative's life can give you some good ideas.

NYG&B President, D. Joshua Taylor, had a great suggestion here: 

“Usually, around the holidays I always center questions around food - this might seem funny, but after all, food involves the senses, which are closely tied to memory. You can smell and taste food, so if someone can’t answer a question such as “where did you go to school,” you might ask – “what was lunch like when you went to school?” Or alternatively, "do you remember a meal that your mother would have made for you when you came home from school?"

And that sometimes triggers a conversation about school that can allow natural memories to surface. You'll often get a better answer than if you just pinned them down and asked: “What was the first year you attended school?”

Other topics you may want to ask about are summer vacations, family trips, or more generally where or with whom they celebrated the holidays in years past. 

4. Seek the same information you do in other research - names, dates, and places

If you're looking to get information that can help you begin your family tree, or if you're looking for information to solve a specific research question, focus on the usual key genealogical information:

  • The names of individuals involved in events or stories
  • The date an event occurred (if memory is fuzzy, even a ballpark estimate is useful) 
  • The place an event or story took place

Collecting this information will help you fill in basic details on individual relatives and ancestors, and this information can then be proven definitively with further research. Knowing general dates and places is crucial for deciding what record sets and repositories to look in to answer your research question. 

Even though you may be seeking specific information, creativity can be useful here as well. For instance, instead of asking "where did you live in 1940?" you may want to calculate the rough age of the relative you're speaking to. If you knew your grandparent was young in 1940, you might instead ask "where did you live when you went to grade school?" 

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5. Ask about parents and grandparents, but don't forget about collateral relatives

Because we often are thinking about direct descendants when doing genealogy, we tend to ask questions about a relative's parents or grandparents. 

But don't forget about the other relatives! 

It's possible that due to a distant relationship with a given ancestor, your relative may not have much information to offer. But many will have spent a lot of time with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Asking the question, "who did you grow up with" can often give you an idea of who your relative knew best, and may provide good direction for further questions to ask. 

Remember, every piece of information you can collect on your family is a potential clue, even if it doesn't directly answer a question you're investigating - you may find that the birthplace of an aunt gives you meaningful direction in answering future research questions. 

6. Make use of photo albums

There are many reasons busting out an old photo album can lead to amazing stories or crucial information. First of all, it's an activity that is familiar to many of us, especially at family gatherings - sitting next to someone and looking through photos may make the relative more comfortable than sitting face-to-face. 

Susan R. Miller, editor of the NYG&B's New York Researcher magazine, and a managing editor of the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer, had some additional reasons why photo albums are a great tool to use: 

"Showing pictures and looking through old photo albums can always jog the memory. If you see a picture of someone, just ask about the person – did you ever spend any time with them, did you ever visit with them or travel with them? Asking about the stories behind pictures, or asking for more information about the time or place of the photo can also generate stories." 

7. Use an audio recorder

This one is a must! Thanks to modern technology, you don't need to have advanced technical skills to pull this off - almost all phones now have built-in audio recorders that are very easy to use. If you have a smart phone, there are plenty of apps that can make recording very simple and effective as well. 

If you don't use a recorder, you will be constantly scribbling notes and won't be able to pay full attention to the flow of the conversation. You may miss major opportunities for further questions and stories. 

You'll also want to save the interview and refer back to it later. Not only for informational purposes, but for the stories and voices of your family members. Many people who make such recordings treasure them for years, and they can easily be shared with other relatives. 

8. Go with the flow! 

You may go into the conversation with a set idea of the things you’ll discuss, or perhaps you’ll be seeking a very specific piece of information. But these types of conversations can go in any direction - especially if you’re sitting down with a pair or group of relatives.

One story may trigger another memory and another story, and before you know it you’re very far away from the topic of the original question – if this happens, that’s great! Just go with it, and you'll be surprised at the gems you uncover. 

9. Treat the information like any other genealogical source

As with any oral history or other genealogical source, you should consider who the informant is and their relationship to the information they’re providing. Ask yourself – is this something the person had firsthand knowledge of, or is it something they may have heard from a second-hand source themselves?

Also, consider the imperfection of memory, and if anyone who passed along this information had a reason to obfuscate or exaggerate the details. Of course, we all should be doing this with any genealogical source we encounter, whether it’s a marriage certificate, census record, or oral interview.  

Consideration should always be rooted in those core genealogical research tenets – it’s always crucial to think critically about your sources.

10. What to do when you're finished

After you have completed your interview or interviews, return to the recording and pull out any key facts that you think are relevant to your family history. You can use these pieces of information to form the basis of a research question, which you can then find documentary evidence to prove or disprove. Scanning and labeling any key pictures that were identified or relevant to the information you collected is also a great idea.

Another really great thing to do is preserve the audio files by backing them up somewhere – you may also want to share them with other family members, either by emailing the recordings around (assuming you have permission to share them of course), or uploading them to a place where your family can privately access them.

11. Just go for it! 

The last and most important piece of advice is to just go for it! Yearly family gatherings are relatively rare occasions, so don’t pass up this golden opportunity.

No need to wait until you have a specific piece of information to seek, or until you have that perfect question or interview subject. Talk to anyone and everyone willing to sit down with you.

In the end, time with all of our family is limited, so don't miss an opportunity at the next family gathering! Many people regret not having these wonderful conversations until it's too late - start preserving your family history today!